Alaska Cruise 2012: To the ship…

(Back to Part One…)

The train ride from the lodge to Whittier was something on the order of 6 hours long. Now don’t get me wrong, I love trains, but six hours is a pretty long time to be on one. (Still beats six hours on a plane, though, I’ll tell you that.) But there’s something to be said for sailing through the Alaskan landscape, with little more than the steady clickety-clack of a 45 mile-an-hour train under your feet…

Some of the Alaskan landscape seen from our train to Whittier.

On the other side of Anchorage—within a couple hours of our destination—we picked up the Turnagain Arm, a glacial fjord on the southern arm of the Cook Inlet, and we proceeded to ride along the edge of it most of the way to Whittier.

Our train, making its way along the edge of Turnagain Arm.

It kept threatening to rain, but the rain never came. The clouds, however, were a show unto themselves…

Yup… more of the Alaskan landscape seen from our train to Whittier.

Just short of Whittier, the train stopped prior to entering a fairly long tunnel. (Apparently, the tunnel is shared by alternating one-way auto and railroad traffic or something like that.) It was our turn before too long, and as we emerged on the other side, this is the sight that awaited us…

Our ship, the Diamond Princess, at the port terminal in Whittier.

The Diamond Princess—952 feet long, weighing over 115,000 tons, and for the next seven days, our floating home.

Time to go cruisin’. :-)

(On to Part Three…)

Alaska Cruise 2012: Denali

For our 10th anniversary this year, we finally took the trip we’ve been talking about taking—an Alaskan cruise. And not just a cruise, but one of the so-called “cruisetours” offered by Princess, where you spend the first few days on land followed by a week at sea. (Or vice versa, though we did do the land portion first.)

The land portion of our trip wasn’t just any old tour—it was five days in and around Denali National Park, split between two of Princess’s wilderness lodges. (The “wilderness” owed to their locations, not the amenities. We weren’t roughing it, trust me.) After flying into Fairbanks the day before the actual start of the cruisetour, we took a bus to our first lodge, the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge in Denali National Park. And when I say our room there had a view, I mean it had a view, as you can see from the photo below.

The view out the door to our room at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Not too shabby…

The next day was our first full day, and the bulk of the first half was spent on a guided natural history tour into the park. The weather that day was a pretty solid overcast for the most part, which didn’t exactly bode well for our chances of catching a glimpse of the park’s main attraction—Denali (a.k.a. Mount McKinley) itself; as it was over 70 miles away from where we were, cloud cover was not our friend. But lo and behold, a couple hours into the tour, we caught a break, and this is what we saw:

An unexpected first view of Denali (Mt. McKinley), taken from the bus on our guided tour into Denali National Park.

Even at 70 miles away, Denali was huge. Not just tall (tallest in North America), but so massively broad. But it wasn’t just Denali… it seemed like everywhere you looked was just another opportunity to see something stunning…

Looking down a glacial valley in Denali National Park.

The following day was mostly a travel day between the two Princess lodges, but instead of bus, we were treated to a five-hour train ride through the heart of Denali on one of Princess’s glass-domed travel trains. I love trains (love them), so this was just a treat, and with the glass-domed roofs, the views were spectacular. However, taking photos through them wasn’t as easy as it would seem, as the glass pretty much ensured that any shots that weren’t straight-on would suffer from reflections. Eventually, a bunch of us figured out that the best way to shoot from the train wasn’t from the cars themselves but from the exposed platforms between the cars. There were signs on the platforms, of course, warning you not to lean on or over the rails, blah blah blah, but you can pretty much guess how much attention we were paying to those.

On the glass-domed train between our two Princess lodges.

Upon arriving at the second lodge, the McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, we were greeted with a light rain and solid overcast. Denali, despite the fact that we were half the distance to the mountain as at the previous lodge, was completely obscured behind a wall of clouds, so I was thinking it was a really good thing we lucked out in seeing Denali a couple of days ago, even if from further away.

The next morning, the rain had stopped, and the sun was out in patches, but Denali was still nowhere to be seen. Our plans, however, had us heading into the nearby town of Talkeetna to spend a couple of hours at the Sun Dog Kennels, home to 11-time Iditarod musher Gerald Sousa. We had been looking forward to riding behind the dogs and, perhaps more importantly, getting a chance to play with the puppies who would become the next generation of sled dogs. But the visit—through entertaining in spots—wasn’t quite what we were expecting (it didn’t help that we were the only two people in our particular tour time, so I don’t think they quite knew how to work with such a small group). Still fun, but a bit disappointing.

Upon returning to the lodge, still no sign of Denali in whole, though the clouds were definitely burning off a bit, allowing us to catch good glimpses of all but the upper part of the mountain. Now at this point, I should mention a rather cool amenity of the lodge: You can leave your name on what amounts to a wake-up list, where the lodge will call your room during the night should the view to Denali clear up. So, duh, our name went on the list. And at around 5:30 the following morning, the call came. My sweetie wasn’t quite interested in getting out of bed just then. Me, I was already dressed and out the door—and I got to see this:

Our first clear view of Denali from the McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge.

By the time we had finished breakfast and were heading back to the room to pack from our trip from the lodge to our departure port of Whittier, the view was no less spectacular:

Denali (Mt. McKinley) as seen from the deck of the McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge.

What an amazing way to start our trip.

(On to Part Two…)